Early morning in the Dangs, even in the peak summer, fetches a cool breeze filtering through the tall trees lined around the village Navgam. The emaciated, wiry river Ambika, so playful and naughty in the monsoon, flows by the outskirts of Navgam in the summer, like a coy bride.
Ramjibhai, the poojari of the tiny village shrine, called Merbai ni Dehri, watched the group of people quietly gather around the entrance to his house. The menfolk sat haunched on the floor while the women stayed close to each other in a huddle, maintaining a customary distance from them.
“Arey, it is too early, bhai. What’s the big hurry? Mohanio is not up yet”
Ramjibhai’s annoyance didn’t have any effect on the group. Their collective gaze on the locked door was persistent and penetrative.
Cock-a-doodle-do – the cock sounded an alert
“Look Ramjibhai, it is about time. Why don’t you wake him up?” Hario suggested, looking around the group for support,
“The good-for-nothing Hario does have a point, Ramjibhai. I am not sure about him but we all have to go to work in the fields”
Khandu cracked his knuckles playfully.
The plump Gajri, seated in the front row, straightened her legs in the direction of the entrance of Mohania’s room, letting out a mild sigh of relief,
“That is so insulting to spread your legs in front of this house. You have no manners, Gajri”, Kashi took out her little box of snuff and sniffed noisily through her nostrils one by one.
“Why are you so pissed off, Kashi? Ramjibhai hasn’t said a word”
“Arey, I am referring to the divine Mohanio. He will surely curse you when he gets up”
“Well, well, well. Are you the only smart soul in the whole village? I have prayed for the recovery of my infant son last night. Mohanio must bless me first, just watch. Everyone is not lazy like you Kashi. We have work to do”
“Now will you stop all the non-sense chatter, stupid women? It looks like Mohanio is up” Parbhu kaka’s eyes were transfixed on the door of Mohania’s room.
Everyone turned his attention at the door to open.
It was the morning just after the full moon night. As always, Mohanio, the 18-year-old son of Ramjibhai Poojari, would get up and rattle off his prophecies for the next month. Like his father, he had grown up worshipping the image of the Kuldevi (Deity), Merbai, of the village; installed in the tiny shrine known as “Merbai ni Dehri”, set up under a gigantic peepal tree, many years ago. The village tank, empty and dry in the summer, provided a stark backdrop for the shrine.
No one was clear about the exact year the shrine was set up but it was definitely many years ago.
The villagers’ daily existence was peppered with problems that defied deliverance. In Mohanio, they found a next-door savior who offered remedies conjured up from nowhere?
Chhanu said it was natural for the poojari’s son to be granted such powers. After all, anyone could pray to the Kuldevi and earn her blessings.
“Then why don’t you sit in front of the Kuldevi all day and worship, like Mohanio does?” provoked Kashi
“His father is a poojari, mine is a simple farmer, you mischievous woman”
“But Chhanu, you too must be dreaming quite a lot but your memory is not sharp like Mohanio. You are lousy forgetful”
“My dreams are all about the mundane stuff – like finding an ancient treasure in my field; God showering me with two hefty bulls and my own land to plough. The dreams are all about me, me and me; not about other’s problems”
“Don’t you ever dream of God rewarding you with a huge drum of Taadi (local liquor)? “Kashi giggled, “then at least you can forget about all your problems for a while and lie in your creaky bed all day”
But Mohanio was different. How could he sit in front of the Merbai, eyes closed, for hours while Ramjibhai sang bhajans in praise of the Kuldevi?
The door of Mohania’s room creaked open slowly.
There he was, fresh out of his bed, slowly emerging out of his room. He stepped out and sat on the old bench that had been sitting there for ages.
He folded his hands and began, without any seemingly conscious effort:
Gajri, your son will get well in 2 days.
Kashi, your daughter will get married by the next full moon.
Chhanukaka, your back pain cannot be wished away soon. Just keep applying the oil that the Vaidjee has given. Take rest and you should be all right by the first showers of monsoon.
Shanti, your son is not going to pass the exam this year.
“And when will the Kuldevi bring the rains, Mohania?” Chhanu was more worried about his crop than his back pain.
“In 10 days”
Mohanio got up, went back inside, and closed the door. That was a swift end of the session.
The villagers cheered. Now the rains were almost here; bountiful crop this year. Jai Merbai, Jai Merbai”
Simple villagers, their needs were simple, their dreams were mundane.
Everyone got up and left, except Shanti.
“Now why do you want to hang around here, Shanti? We have no remedies for your son.”
“Do something, Ramjibhai. He can get a nice job in Bardoli town once he passes the Matric exam. Some rituals to please Merbai, please, have mercy on me?” beseeched Shanti
Ramjibhai looked around and unleashed a barrage of expletives “ _______, _______, You worthless woman, do you think we dupe people to earn a quick buck by offering non-sensical rituals in a language you don’t understand? Get lost. If Mohanio comes to know about it he will ask Merbai to never let your son pass the exam”
Shanti could never understand why Mohanio could not agree to pray, for a fee, exclusively for her son. The poojari of the neighboring village did it all the time.
The miraculous prophecies had made Mohanio a celebrity in the cluster of villages around. The trail of prophecies started around Janmasthami (the Hindu date of birth of Lord Krishna) last year.
They followed a peculiar tradition in the village. A makeshift image of kuldevi Merbai made of clay would be worshipped for seven days with all the fanfare and religious songs and on the eighth day, the image would be immersed in the tank behind the shrine. Nobody knew the reason or the significance of the ritual but they followed it religiously year after year. Everyone has a role to play – even the Gods. There is a time for everything. As soon as the task is over out you go.
Mohanio had just turned eighteen and for the first time, he was allowed by his father to carry the image of Merbai all the way to the tank for immersion.
Then people noticed a big change in the behavior of Mohania. He started spending virtually all his time in front of the shrine, in deep meditation.
“Oh well, Ramjibhai will pass on the baton to his son in due course so it just makes sense”, some of Mohania’s friends reasoned.
“That is ok but Dhiru, your fiancée Geeta seems to be smitten by Mohanio. Be careful” Ramesh warned Dhiru
“Shut up you foul-mouthed, nothing will happen. I am betrothed to Geeta”
“Yes, but times are bad, Dhiru. The girls easily get enamored by the bare torso of Mohanio when he meditates in front of the shrine.” All the friends in the group enjoyed the fun.
“Why don’t you mind your business, Ramesh. What makes you stare at my Geeta?” Dhiru walked off
And then it happened just after the following first full moon night. Mohanio just got up and started babbling about some great flood that would occur on the fifth day of the month. The docile river flowing by the village was in spate. The waters rose to almost a foot high in the houses of the village.
How did Mohanio get this premonition in his dream? Was he simply fooling people? Why would he?
Ramji and his wife, Reva didn’t know what to do. Mohania’s full moon night prophecies turned out to be true, every time.
Once he predicted that a gang of dacoits would strike on a certain day. The villagers were now convinced about the foretelling powers of Mohania. They posted some well-built young men of the village to keep a vigil at night.
Sure enough; the dacoits struck just after midnight but the young men kept them at bay.
Now the villagers began approaching Mohanio with their problems to find a solution. They flocked at his door the next morning to hear him.
“Arey, Ramjibhai, you must start charging a fee for the service that Mohanio is providing” Chhanu advised Ramji.
“No bhai, Merbai would get angry. We are doing just fine. Why do we need more money? The simpleton Ramji would not take the bait.
“But Mohanio is coming of age now. You will need money for his marriage”
“Oh well. My merciful Merbai will take care of that, Chhanu”
For centuries, a daughter in the family always meant a liability in the Hindu household. The practice of putting a newborn girl to sleep had slowly become extinct on the waves of reforms, but the clamor for a boy in the family prevailed high in most families, especially in the villages.
The parents of a girl would start looking for a suitable groom as soon as she entered puberty.
Rukmi’s father Shankar, the mukhiya (Chief) of the neighbouring village, Halwada, was no different. The continual nudges from his wife, Kiki, to look for a good boy made his life miserable.
At the miraculous dream revelation show in the village Navgam, Shankar found in Mohanio, a perfect match for Rukmi.
“Arey, listen, Rukmi’s mother. I have got a fantastic idea”
“Oho, don’t you see I am in the middle of my pooja (Prayer routine)? Can’t you wait?” Kiki, his wife, seated on a low wooden seat, was busy ringing the tiny bell around the image of Lord Krishna as the final routine of her daily worship.
“Jai Sri Krishna”, Kiki, got up with great physical effort, wrapping the loose saree around her waist, “Ok, now what is it that excites you so much?”
“Where is Rukmi?” Shankar surveyed the little house
“She must be milking the cow, why? What is the matter?”
“Guess what? I found a perfect match for our Rukmi!”
“Really? Kiki’s eyes opened wide with excitement.
“Yes. He is Ramjibhai’s son, Mohanio”
“The poojari at Navagam?”
“Oh, that lazy boy who didn’t finish his school? No no, I want a nice educated boy with a good job for my Rukmi”
Now can the mother of a girl ask for more?
“You will not believe what I saw with my own eyes, Kiki”
Shankar removed his kurta (a loose shirt) and hung it on the stand and proceeded to describe in great detail the story of Mohania.
“I think we should not let this opportunity pass. He seems to be a divine soul. Besides, the poojari family will never go hungry” Shankar folded his hands at the little image of Krishna, seeking the Lord’s blessings.
The next day, Shankar went back to Navgam with Kiki to meet the poojari and see for themselves how well off the poojari family really was.
“Mohanio is still young. We have not broached this subject to him yet” pleaded Ramji.
How the hell can they accept the very first proposal for their priceless divine gem?
“Arey good Lord, we are not asking for marrying them off right away. Getting them betrothed would be nice. They would make a perfect couple, don’t you think?” Shankar pushed further.
“Rukmi too is devoted to worshipping Lord Krishna every day” Kiki pitched in to make the case stronger, thoroughly mesmerized, as she sighted Mohanio in the next room through the half-open door.
“But your daughter has cleared her secondary school, she will find it too difficult to adjust to the laid-back life as the wife of a poojari”
Reva blurted out unwittingly but checked herself as she saw a trace of disapproval from Ramji – a moment of reckoning for him, – a mild indictment from a bored wife of 25 years!
“Reva, why don’t you go and get some tea for the guests?” Ramji, alerted by the faint sign of rebellion from Reva, deftly changed the subject.
“Look, Ramjibhai, dowry is not a problem at all. Lord Krishna has been merciful to me. You can visit this poor little man at Halwada any time soon and have a look at Rukmi… Please?”
Ramji couldn’t quite understand how this man, a mukhiya – blessed by Lord Krishna with wads of money, could call himself a poor little man. But in the parlance of matchmaking, the parents of the girl had to appear meek and submissive – transferring their liability to the family of the boy.
Reva struggled to bring the tray of tea and snacks from the kitchen. Kiki rushed to give a helping hand, bowing reverently to the little image of Merbai as she passed it on the way.
Kiki was now all for the deal.
Some idle women of Navgam, gathered around the front verandah of the house, were straining their ears to unravel the suspense of the unfamiliar visitors. Dhiru, from across the row of houses, in particular, was not happy to find Geeta in the group. Ramesh’ taunting him was not baseless after all.
It was the aarti time in the evening. Ramjibhai folded his hands and excused himself for the aarti ritual, promising to get back to Shankar soon.
Mohanio, missing in action till then, suddenly appeared before his father, as the visitors got up to leave.
“Wow, he looks as divine as my Lord Krishna.” Kiki couldn’t take her eyes off the boy – “A Krishna with fair skin!”
Shankar looked at this wife as a sign of validation “Look I told you”, She was on the seventh heaven.
The women had a close look at the visitors as they finally drove off on their Honda mobike. But who were they? Why had they come?
Mohanio followed his father, head bowed, towards the shrine, passing an awe-struck Geeta. Ramesh poked Dhiru with his elbow ‘Hey brother, you better believe it”
The aarti lasted close to 15 minutes.
Reva went around with the aarti plate in her hands to let the people warm their palms from the flickering lamp and moving them over their heads as a gesture of their devotion.
“Mohania beta, will you come and sit here with me. I need to talk to you” Ramji discreetly gestured to his son.
“Yes, bhai, I will just be with you in a moment” Mohanio went in his room to put on the bright red kurta again and returned to face his father in the living room.
Ramji closed the front door to muffle the noise of the little children playing outside and motioned Mohania to sit beside him on the large swing.
“Mohania, your mother and I are very happy with the manner in which you have slowly taken up all the tasks of the poojari. Soon you will be the main poojari of the Merbai shrine.”
“Bhai, I am happy that you are satisfied with that. It is all due to the blessings of our Kuldevi Merbai. Jai Merbai”
Mohanio folded his hands in reverence to his father.
Ramji placed his right hand on his head and smiled benevolently, “Do us another favour Dikra (Son) “
“Just tell me bhai. Your command is my wish”
Reva entered the room “Why do you have to close the door at this time?”
“Shhhhhh.. keep the door closed”
“So, what is going on between the father and son, hunh?”
“Please sit on the cot and listen, Reva”
“Ok, so Mohania, we feel that you must get married now. “ Ramji gestured at Reva as if telling her “see what was going on?”
“Yes, beta, a lot of our acquaintances have been pestering us for long now. It’s about time”
Mohanaia’s face wore a quizzical look. He looked at his father “ But why?”
“Everyone gets married, Beta. That’s the custom; a way of life. Don’t you want to have a wife – to love you, bear your children?”
“But I am happy being a poojari – a poojari’s son. I love to worship – worship the Kuldevi Merbai. I love Merb….”
Ramji cut him short, “The whole village knows that but you have to get settled in life – with a loving wife and children to follow.”
Reva added “Don’t you see your parents? Aren’t we happy?”
Reva’s happiness began and ended with Ramji.
Mohanio got up from the swing with a jerk that shook the swing up.
“Take your time, beta. You can think it over, ok?”
Ramji saved the situation for the moment. Reva was firm that the matter should have been settled right then.
For Reva, it would be great to boss over Mohania’s wife – just like Ramji’s mother used to – and she lived long in her Nineties. A relief from doing house chores would be a bonus.
Mohania’s face was a deadpan as he made his way to sneak back into his own little room, closing the doors behind.
“It’s Merbai’s wish, Reva, Bolo Merbai ni Jay” Ramji gestured towards Reva with his hand to reassure her that things would be just fine.
The next full moon night was still far ahead. Mohanio was restless. To his chagrin, the news about his parents’ initiating the discussion about a hunt for his bride became the talk of the village.
At prayer times, he loved to concentrate on the lovely face of the kuldevi Merbai that everyone worshipped. His cute face made girls swoon but for Mohanio the only face that stirred love was that of Merbai.
From the fateful day that his parents initiated the move to get him to agree to the marriage, Merbai appeared in his dream regularly. But she didn’t offer any advice and kept smiling at him. It was as if Mohanio and Merbai were just one soul, strung together by a strange thread of love. And how could Mohanio tell his parents about these dreams?
The number of visitors to poojari’s little house swelled by the day. The bunch of women had a whale of time gossiping about the unfamiliar visitors.
The monsoon broke over the village exactly as Mohania had predicted and it was still mid Ashaadh (the first of the gour months of monsoon season) month. The farmers got busy and so did the casual labourers who worked in the fields owned by high caste farmers of other prosperous villages far away.
It would be a full moon night once again in a couple of days.
“Will Mohanio get visions of his own future wife in his dream this time?” Parbhukaka craned his neck in vain to see who made that blasphemous query.
“It is time Mohanio looks at some of the charming girls in our Navgam first. That will save him the trouble to lead his wedding party all the way to the far-off villages”
“But the old-fashioned elders won’t permit that”
“The ban on such marriages has some God-damned reasons, you silly girls” Parbhukaka, the defender of traditions lambasted
“So Parbhukaka, then what about Dhiru and Geeta,? They are from the same village” Asha, the newly married girl in the village looked at Geeta.
“Geeta’s parents, from the village of Palwan, lost their lives in the great floods two years ago and she is staying with her uncle here; get the point, Asha?”
It started raining. The open-door meeting of gossiping women ended abruptly.
Mohanio had pretty much shut himself up in his room, except for the ritual of worship.
Babu, the herdsman said he once heard Mohanio talking to himself alone in his room. Was he going nuts?
While Ramji and Reva had a great time being the center of attention from all sorts of strange people coming forth with their proposals for betrothal, Mohanio couldn’t decipher his own dreams.
For the most part of his dreams, Merbai just continued with her enigmatic lovely smile, whispering no words to him. What does she want me to do? He loved the way she smiled at him, loved the way she came close to him.
Once he saw himself playing the cosmic flute, seated on the branch of a tree, just like Lord Krishna, and Merbai danced around him in a circle. It was heavenly.
But what was the meaning of all this? He feared he would not get the usual prophetic dream on the full moon night this time. Instead, Merbai would just materialize in front of him in the dream and dance around him in circles till the circle shrank with each round, finally to slip into hollow of his flute.
How will I show my face to the people who would come with high hopes? Oh Merbai, just stop playing tricks with me. Please let me get on with the prophetic dreams.
In the evening of the full moon day, people did come with their queries, requests, some with tears in their eyes. Mohanio had to listen to each one of them, but in the heart of his heart, he was very scared. What if he failed this time? How would he face them the next morning? He had never been able to understand how he came up with those prophecies but some invisible power always made it happen. Was that Merbai? Who was she; a divine being? What was his relation with her?
He skipped his dinner that night. He hoped the full moon would never show up that night.
But the moon rose majestically, much larger than usual. After a heavy downpour in the day, the rains had taken a breather that night. The droplets fell from the leaves all night. No dogs barked that night. The hoot of a stray owl added a touch of foreboding.
Mohanio had his dream early in the night. He got up and came out in the verandah, smiling to himself. He stood there, leaning against a round pillar and watched the magnificent moon sailing by in the sky. His gaze finally fell on the shrine, under the peepal tree, the white paint, shining in the dazzling moonlight.
Mohanio, folded his hands in reverence to the deity from his verandah and quietly went back to his room. The village slept on. No one had noticed Mohanio. Everyone must be dreaming of an end to his woes.
Merbai ni jay.
Mohanio woke up late in the morning, on the first date of the Hindu Calendar- the dark fortnight of Ashadh.
The villagers had gathered at his doorstep, in complete reverence – to Merbai, if not to Mohanio – waiting to hear the prophecies from the mouth of her chief devotee.
“Arey, arey , arey, get her out of the way; quick” Some youngsters made a dash at a listless cat as she crossed her path between the crowd and the doors of Mohanio.
‘Oh my God, a bad omen. What is going to happen?” Someone cried out.
And then they saw him materialize from the room, walking up to the bench and folding his hands at them
A hush fell over the crowd.
He turned towards everyone in turns and stared at the shrine, a few yards away.
The first rays of the rising sun made his face glow.
“My dear fellow villagers, I must confess…..” he paused for a few seconds that seemed like an eternity, and continued,
“I have no prophecies today for you. It was our reverend Merbai, who kept guiding me all these months, as long she was a distinct soul, not a part of me. Now she is a part of me. I am forbidden to reveal anything. It will be a heresy. Like me, if you worship her with faith she will be part of you and you will find a solution to your woes yourselves.”
The villagers looked at one another, stupefied.
“Arey Ramjubhai, why don’t you ask him to stop talking in riddles? Come clean, for heaven’s sake” The eldest among the village folks mustered up the courage to put Ramjibhai on the spot.
Ramji, as confused as everyone else, pointed his long stick towards Mohania, “Arey beta, people have come here with high expectations. Come on”
“Come on Mohania” the crowd yelled
“Father, forgive me. Merbai is a part of me now. I can’t. Gods cannot sin”
“What do you mean she is a part of you now? She is a part of all of us here.” Parbhukaka started getting up to confront him.
“Mohanio has gone crazy. He has lost his balance” someone shouted
Ramjibhai raised his hand to keep the crowd quiet.
“Oh beta, come on now, you can’t disappoint them”
“Father, Merbai appeared in my dream and she garlanded me as her husband! We are married now”
The crowd fell silent. No one moved.
Blasphemy! Cheat! Crazy!
Ramjibhai had a hard time warding off people from coming close to Mohnaio, using all his strength to push Mohanio back into his room. He locked the door, pleading everyone to go home.
Merbai ni Jay.
The dreams of all the villagers had come down crashing. They had loved Mohanio, worshipped him, just like their deity Merbai. Saints had taught them for centuries that life without problems is like a fool’s dream. Lead a good life, pray to God and he is sure to sort the problems out.
Miraculously, Mohanio fell from grace overnight. He lay in his bed, trying to dream more in the early hours of the morning. Reva, his worried mother, got tired of knocking at his door. Ramji was clueless. Mohanio had not only failed the villagers but also brought a strange unwelcome misery in the lives of the poojari family.
Ramji felt his brain would burst open.
Marrying the God-like deity Merbai is ridiculous. How would the villagers react to their unhappiness? Would they ostracize him and his family? Will they beat him to a pulp? What will happen to the respect that he had earned over the years as a poojari? The entire district would banish him from performing the only duty he knew. His future looked dark.
“Must talk to him one more time. He has been a very obedient boy. He will understand. It is my fault to have goaded him to get married soon.”
Ramji got up resolutely and walked up to Mohnaia’s door. Reva looked on, with a tray of tea and breakfast in her hand.
The door was not locked. He pushed it open and entered the room.
The sight was repulsive. Mohanio sat on his bed, back to the door, with the big picture of Merbai, pressed to his body. Mohanio was singing some bhajan that Ramji had never heard in his life. He went closer to the bed and placed his hand over Mohania’s head,
“Beta Mohania, look your mai (dear Mother) has brought some tea and breakfast for you. Come on get up, freshen up and have your breakfast”
Ramji tried to snatch the picture Mohanio was holding but he clutched it even firmly and turned his head in the direction of his parents.
“I need two plates, One, for me and the other for Merbai”, Ramji stood there motionless, staring at Mohania’s eyes. The eyes were not those of his son. There was a strange glow in those eyes. What had happened to him?
Ramji was now scared. It was futile to argue with a pseudo divine character in front of him.
The clueless Reva mechanically brought one more plate and placed it on the desk in front of the bed. At least Mohanio should not go hungry.
The poojari couple left the room, closing the door behind them.
Some inquisitive boys and girls had gathered outside their window to make some meaning out of whatever had been going on in the house.
Mohanio emerged from his room, late in the morning, wearing new clothes, like a groom, and sat on the swing.
It was now Reva’s turn to try. She brought some fruits and placed them before Mohanio.
“How are you, beta? Should I put a plate for Merbai too in your room?”
“Yes, Mai”, Reva’s trick worked; at least he had started responding now
She signaled Ramji, anxious to get near, not to join the conversation.
“Beta, can we talk now?”
“Yes, go ahead, I am listening” Mohanio smiled but it was a divinely intriguing smile.
“Look, we want to forget whatever happened last night and this morning. Do you know how much the people of this village and other villages around respect you?”
Mohania’s face had the same enigmatic smile.
“So let us make a new beginning. Your father has decided to retire from the priesthood and install you as the poojari of the shrine…..” Reva paused to see if the bait had worked, and resumed,
“So, with the new responsibilities as the main poojari, you have to prove worthy of it”
“Like what, Mai?”
“Your devotion to Merbai will be respected. But you have to get married to a nice girl…. of your choice if you will. We will not say a word. … Have some more fruits?”
“Ha Ha Ha, but you believed in all my full-moon night dreams all these months, didn’t you? “
“Of course, we did”
“So, the same Merbai appeared in my dream last night and became one with me – as her husband. Why don’t you believe it? It is not me; it is she, the kuldevi Merbai herself, who decided to marry me. Who am I to say no?’
“But that was a dream…”
“So were all the previous dreams too. They all came true. So is this one”
Reva looked back at her poojari husband while Mohanio got up in a flash and locked himself up in his room
“I must go back to my room and pray. The stupid villagers won’t allow me to worship her at the temple now”
“But what about your lunch?”
“The fruits, Mai. That’s all” came a muffled reply from the locked room.
Ramji and Reva were stunned. No one knew how to resolve the unprecedented divinely tricky issue.
They had no appetite for lunch, could not even venture out in the verandah.
From the cracked windowpane Ramji saw a group of boys passing by, gesturing at the door, joking and patting each other. Far away, the shrine of Merbai was desolate, except for a stray dog running about aimlessly. The clouds had gathered again, a heavy downpour loomed large. Ramji – Reva wished they could cry their heart out like the impending downpour.
Late in the afternoon, Reva pressed her ear to Mohania’s door to hear faint verses of bhajans unheard before. What had happened to Mohanio? Everything had been going on so well. Was that some sort of a curse? But curse from Merbai who had the gumption to marry the poojari’s son?
It started raining. The night fell early and the village itself looked haunted by a ghost that happened to be their Kuldevi Merbai!
It was still the second fortnight of the monsoon month Ashadh and a bucketful of unmanageable rains already. One shuddered to think of three more months of the season.
The God-like Merbai had turned out to be made of human flesh.
Mercy, Merbai, mercy. Oh, but it was Merbai that had brought forth this misery of rains and possible floods. So where could they turn to? Turn to whom? The protector had turned destroyer.
Mohania’s routine remained same what his parents had seen, day after day.
On the day before the last day of the Ashadh month, a group of sanyaasis trouped in, headed by their Chief – an impressive looking monk with a long white beard.
It was customary for the villagers to welcome monks who would spend the monsoon months in the Dharamshala (a free guest house meant for visitors to the village) at one end of the village, not far from the shrine.
The next morning, Mahatma Dada Maharaj, as his disciple addressed him, positioned himself near the shrine surrounded by his disciples, and began his religious discourse.
Gradually, the villagers started streaming in to join the group of monks, listening to the comforting words from Dada Maharaj.
A ray of hope streaked through in the form of Dada Maharaj
Merbai ni Jay
The simple villagers were now getting wary of saintly figures. Mohania had shaken their faith in divinity. Even Merbai….? Could the Kuldevi do this? But that is what Mohanio claimed. It was getting too complicated.
Mohanio was an ardent devotee of Merbai. He dreamed up every full-moon night to sort out the mundane problems of the villagers. They believed in him because all his prophecies proved right! Now the same Mohanio dreamed up Merbai garlanding him as her husband! Simple deductive logic, it was. He must be telling the truth, at least his side of the truth.
“Don’t you all know who penned the bhajans that we sing? Do you know who Meerabai was? She was a princess who thought of Lord Krishna as her husband.” Geeta had told her aunt, Jamna
“Come on, that story is a fake one”, Geeta’s aunt knew what she was leading to.
“But the bhajans are for real, auntie. Can you read? Look, what she says, Mere to Giridhar Gopal, doosra naa koi” (Lord Krishna is all mine; no one else)
“Your education has spoiled you, Geeta. God damn this perverse education. This has nothing to do with our situation. Keep quiet or else I will send you back to your village right away” Aunt wasn’t ready to digest Geeta’s wisdom.
But the nagging doubt made aunt Jamna talk to her husband, Gopal, “Why don’t you ask this Mahatma?”
Geeta’s explanation spread like a wildfire. Even 400 years ago a princess had the guts to announce that Lord Krishna was her husband. Aren’t we damning poor Mohanio for no fault of his?
After the religious discourse was over, Dada Maharaj looked around to see that lot villagers had gathered along with his disciples.
“My pranaam (Salutations) all of you. So how are you all? May the all-pervading God be kind to you”
Jamna came forward to place a basket of mangoes for him.
Dada Maharaj smiled in appreciation.
“Wasn’t there a mango tree just near the water tank right there?” pointing to a patch of land.
“Yes,’ an old man confirmed “I remember in my younger days the tree was very much there, exactly at the spot you are showing. But how do you know that Dada Maharaj?”
“Come on, dadajee (Grandpa), Mahatma is a self-realized soul. He knows everything” Chhanu taunted the old man.
“Well, dadajee is right.” Dada Maharaj paused to sip a glass of water, “I know it because this is my village. I was born here. Then…”
“Then you ran away to join Saint Rang Avdhoot, didn’t you?” Dadajee completed his sentence; “I was just a toddler then but my father revealed it to me later.
Everyone was speechless. “You, Dada Maharaj? Belong to this village?”
“That is absolutely correct. I ran away and fell at the feet of the great Saint Rang Avdhoot; became a monk; wandered further southward; settled down to put up an ashram in a remote village, Mangaon, in Maharashtra”
“Isn’t that great? Now, will you stay here?” Gopal asked expectantly; with Mohanio having failed and Merbai playing unfathomable games, someone like the Mahatma would be an ideal spiritual entity to lean on.
Dada Maharaj’s disciples got a bit restive.
“Unfortunately, I can’t. Now I belong to my adopted village – Mangaon in Maharashtra” the Mahatma’s words had a tinge of finality.
Nevertheless, a wave of excitement swept through the villagers. Their son of the soil had returned after many years. It happened to be the right time for him to appear on the scene. Would he resolve the unnerving mystery that had befallen the village?
“Dada Maharaj jee”, the Sarpanch of the Panchayat, got up, with folded hands in reverence, “It is our earnest wish that you resolve this great upheaval caused by our Mohania”
“You must, Dada Maharaj, before you leave” the members of the Panchayat pleaded in a chorus.
Dada Maharaj smiled, “I happen to know everything. The distraught poojari briefed me last night”
“Oh, so you must have a solution at hand, Maharaj”
From his high pedestal seat Dada Maharaj spoke to the villagers who sat through the narration of the riveting story:
“This is much before I ran away from the village, my fellow brothers and sisters. We had a learned old wise man called Bhikhu Dada who often told this story to us. The story is of Kuldevi Merbai, who she was and what happened”
In the cloudless sky, the sun got harsher; Dada Maharaj paused; the group formed a smaller circle around him to sit under the shade of the great peepal tree.
“Many years ago, while Bhikhu Dada himself was a young boy, a poojari family lived in the same house that Ramjibhai lives in. They just had one daughter, Merbai. She was very beautiful. Just like Mohanio, she used to accompany her poojari father to worship Lord Krishna here where I am sitting right now. She would get ecstatic and start dancing and praying aloud in praise of Lord Krishna, particularly on the Janmashtami day.
A passing Sadhu (monk) had once had told her the story of the great Saint Meerabai and how she spent her entire life in the worship of Lord Krishna as her husband. As you all know, she composed a great number of bhajans in praise of the Lord and sang in gay abandon.
Our Merbai, in her childhood fantasy, imagined herself to be that Meerabai and remained immersed in the worship of Lord Krishna as her husband. Her behavior did not go well with the conservative villagers. She stopped attending to the ritual worships at the shrine and spent all her time in her little room, playing with the image of Lord Krishna that the Sadhu had gifted her. “
At this moment, Ramji and his wife Reva joined the group
“Some of the elders of the village asked the poojari to get her married off and get rid of the nuisance that she had become the talk of the cluster of villages surrounding our village. But who would marry a crazy girl who claimed that she was the reincarnation of Saint Meerabai and that Lord Krishna was her husband?
People threatened to ostracize the poojari family. The agony of having such a crazy girl as their daughter was so acute that the parents abandoned the village in the dead of one dark night and disappeared, never to be found.
Now what to do with this girl? Nobody was prepared to feed her. She got weaker but continued with her ways.
On the night before the great Janmashtami festival, it rained very heavily, the kind the villagers had never seen in their life. The river breached the banks, the tank overflowed. The waters began to rise. People feared for their lives. The roofs of several houses had been blown off. Everyone sat in pouring rains, shivering, and praying.
Then they saw her. Merbai, emerged from her room, with a determined gait that amazed the onlookers. She had her little image of Lord Krishna in her right hand. She waded through the water all the way to this place where a temple of Lord Krishna stood. The high level that of the land that you see now dates back to that day. She motioned everyone to follow her. The rising waters were left far behind. Everyone followed her to the high ground at the temple. She began chanting prayers in praise of Lord Krishna, unmindful of the fury of the rains.
The fury of the rains started subsiding, the water level began to fall, and the river regained its original course. My brothers and sisters, the village was saved,….
A new Saint was born that day. She saved the village single-handedly, just like Lord Krishna did thousands of years ago by lifting the Govardhan hill.
Merbai was not done yet. She continued to sing as she went around the temple, again and again, six times. People watched in amazement and sang with her, clapping their hands rhythmically.
As she turned for the final seventh round and momentarily disappeared behind the temple, a giant wave rose from the water and swept her away.
The cheers turned into cries of agony. Oh my God, save her, save her. But she was gone.
Was she the reincarnation of Saint Meerabai? Was that her faith in Lord Krishna that saved the village from destruction? No one knows. Was that a miracle? Good Lord, I have no idea.
The practice of immersing an image of Merbai in the tank on Janmashtami day started for this reason.”
The Mahatma paused.
“But what do I do now, Maharaj?” Reva prostrated before him, sobbing
“Oh, my sister, have faith in the Almighty,” Maharaj uttered the wisdom handed down for centuries
“But, Mohanio…..?” Reva covered her mouth with the loose end of her saree to muffle her uncontrollable spell of sobs.
“Arey Sarpanch jee,’ Dada Maharaj hailed the Chief of Panchayat “Come and meet me in my room along with the panchayat members, the poojari Ramji, and his wife. We will find a way out”
The next day, it would be the first day of the second fortnight of the Hindu month of Shraavan. Things were falling in place with the Saintly intervention of Dada Maharaj. The villagers slept peacefully that night.
Merbai ni Jay
It was the first day of the dark fortnight of the Shravan month. The villagers were in a quandary. How would they celebrate the first 7 days in worshipping Merbai? Would Ramjibhai conduct the rituals? Would Mohanio join the celebrations?
“Any idea what they discussed with Dada Maharaj last night” Chhanu instigated his friends.
“Why don’t you ask the Sarpanch kaka?”
The evening saw Dada Maharaj leading Mohanio and the rest to the shrine of Merbai, singing prayers.
“What are they up to? What is the disgraced Mohanio going to do?” they shook their heads in disapproval. But how could they find fault with the wisdom of their Dada Maharaj? He had to know the best.
Dada Maharaj made Mohania sit in front of the shrine, facing the image of Merbai. His face lit up, his arms spread to hail the Kuldevi and he broke into a bhajan. Dada Maharaj, his entourage, Ramji, and Reva joined Mohania in reciting the bhajan, full-throated.
Everyone gathered there joined impulsively. It was celebration time once again. When Mohanio paused to catch his breath Dada Maharaj picked it up from there to start a bhajan in praise of Lord Krishna. The villagers were ecstatic, singing, dancing, and praying. The turmoil that they had gone through began to recede in the background. What did Dada Maharaj do? What is going to happen now? No one cared.
The spell of bhajans lasted almost three hours. Mohanio sat through the proceedings, clutching the tiny image of Merbai in his right arm, oblivious of the vast gathering around him. After the distribution of Prasad to everyone, Mohanio got up and walked back to his room. Was he back to his senses? Had he given up on the crazy idea of marrying the Kuldevi? No one knew except the members of the panchayat and his parents. Had the mahatma cast a magic spell on Mohania?
Ramesh and Dhiru called up their friends for a secret meeting of their own.
“I hid behind the Dharamshala to hear whatever was going on in the meeting with Dada Maharaj” Ramesh broke the news to his friends.
“Did you hear anything, Ramshaa?”
“No, they were talking in very low voices. I just saw Mohanio nod to whatever the Mahatma was saying to him.”
“Oh, that means they have persuaded Mohania to give up the idea of marrying Merbai” Dhiru concluded.
“Right, bhai, good for the village”
The next day in the evening, the celebrations began exactly like the first day except that Mohanio looked soberer. The next day even more sober……
The celebrations continued in the evening every day for the first 7 days of the fortnight.
The Eighth Day – Janmashtami day – the day Lord Krishna was born and the day that Merbai sacrificed her life.
The day began with thunderous clouds threatening to unleash. The river was in spate since the previous day. The tank behind the shrine was full.
They were all eagerly waiting for the grand celebrations of the birth of Lord Krishna. A huge pandal was erected around the shrine of Merbai. The Sarpanch had made arrangements to make it a memorable affair; the cradle for the image of Krishna, the band of musicians, the sumptuous dinner.
But where was Mohanio? Where were Ramjibhai and Reva? Still in their house?
Dada Maharaj appeared first at the venue, with his group of disciples. The crowd gathered around, waiting to hear him give his special discourse on the occasion.
Dada Maharaj blessed everyone by raising his hands and motioned them to sit down. It started raining. The thunders grew louder.
“Brothers and Sisters, my Pranam to all (Salutations). On this auspicious occasion of Janmashtami, it is indeed my privilege to be with you all, in the very village that I can still call my own.
It is also my duty to do whatever I can to ease the pain that you all have gone through in the last one month. Please forgive me if I do not measure up to your expectations in any way but, in consultation with your elders and of course the poojari family we have decided to hear our inner voice, instead of clinging to the dogma of traditions.”
Kashi made a quizzical gesture with her hand at other women. “What does he mean?”
“Keep quiet you silly woman” the woman next to her shut her up.
Dada Maharaj continued, “Our principal focus has been to understand whatever has been going on in Mohania’s mind and treat him first so as to make him sane in our eyes. Ramjibhai is getting old and cannot carry on forever. Who, other than Mohania, can fill in the void? So, I proposed that we go through the ritual of Mohanio getting married to the image of Merbai ….”
The rain had intensified into a torrent. Would the river breach the banks and merge with the tank?
The crowd became restive.
‘Quiet please; first, listen to what our Dada Maharaj is saying. He is the best person to guide us”, the Sarpanch had to raise his voice
“So, this is going to be a ritual only to satisfy Mohanio. We think this will help him regain his sensibilities. All of you have seen how his outward behavior has changed progressively in the last seven days. You will see a total change once he goes through this ritual. I am sure of it”
“But what about the immersion ceremony for the image of Merbai?” Chhanu asked pointedly, looking dazed at the scary sight of the river in spate.
“That too will happen. Patience…”
It was about time to start the celebrations. Mohanio emerged from his house, fully decked up as a bridegroom, accompanied by his parents, the image of his bride firmly in his right hand.
“He is looking regal” declared a young girl.
“This is going to be a farce and nothing else, Dhiru” Ramesh sighed, “Oh, Mohanio is marrying an image? He can still have another real wife from among the lovely girls of our village!” provoked Ramesh
“Shut up, will you?” Dhiru threw a dirty glance
The musicians joined the bridegroom party as it neared the venue. Mohanio sat down with his bride next to him.
Dada Maharaj started reciting the Sanskrit verses in a hurry to get on with the ritual. Mohanio looked unperturbed, with a benign smile on his face.
The rains forced some people outside the pandal to leave the venue and position themselves in the verandah of houses nearby.
The relentless downpour forced Dada Maharaj to hurry up with the ritualistic chanting of verses. The musicians signaled the end of the ceremony by raising the sound of drums. Mohanio garlanded the little image to signify the sacred union.
It was now the time for the final ritual of the couple going around the shrine seven times to complete the ceremony.
The sound of the drums, the thunder, and the strange ritual all combined to give a feeling of foreboding. The story of Merbai that Dada Maharaj had narrated kept flashing by in the minds of the people. Mohanio looked calm; strangely calm for the occasion.
Ramji motioned Mohanio to begin circling the venue. He clutched the image of Merbai and started circling; the first round, then the second, then the third, fourth, fifth, the sixth……
Mohanio and his bride were now ready for the final round of vow, the fury of rains reached a crescendo, no one could see anything clearly except that Mohano disappeared behind the shrine for the seventh round, the drums beat even faster and louder.
Halfway through the seventh round behind the shrine Mohanio halted. He heard a strange voice, that of Merbai. “My Mohan. My Krishna, now is the time to jump in the waters together; don’t you want to be one with me, my Lord, my Krishna? My Mohan? The voice grew louder every second; the people standing in the verandah shouted “Immerse Merbai in the tank, Mohania, quick”
Mohanio walked ahead a bit, saw the great body of water in the tank, raised the image he was carrying to throw, and in a flash jumped in the tank, clutching his bride firmly. The river water that had entered the tank sucked them deep into a Jal Samadhi (watery grave) forever.
The crowd was stunned. It was incredible! Mohanio performed the ultimate immersion. The stoic Dada Maharaj folded his hands high up and bid them goodbye.
They discovered a manuscript book of bhajans composed by their Mohan – the modern incarnation of Lord Krishna.
Merbai the incarnation of the 16 th Century Saint Meerabai finally found her Lord.
They constructed a new temple and installed the image of Merbai and Mohan together. Ramji lived on for many years to worship the images and recite the new story to future generations of the village.
Mohan-Merbai ni jay.
Merbai ni Dehri – Epilogue
Johnny-come-lately writers, like yours truly, face daunting dilemmas. With apologies to the budding young writers and their ilk– the future life just doesn’t have enough of mileage for the late comers to keep going.
However, the flip side is that novice writers like me have traveled such a long time on this earth that ideas can be plucked out of the journey with the ease of gulping down “paani-poories” from a plate that gets replenished by the paani-poorie vendor with a flourish.
More often than not, we generate fresh ideas to enrich the language so that it lasts to eternity.
What were the compulsions to come up with the story of Merbai?
A lot of my friends asked me “Is this a real story? Where did this happen? Where is the dehri of Mohan – Merbai?”
The historical real-life character of Meerabai never failed to excite and inspire me. Just imagine! More than 400 years ago, in the most conservative of the regions of Mevaad in Rajasthan, a young princess mustered up the courage to proclaim Krishna as her only true husband.
To utter it once, in the spur of a moment, is easy enough but to stick to it for life must have been a monumentally tormenting task for her. What is more, she gave a big impetus to the bhakti movement, producing reams of bhajans that became the signature tune of woman empowerment!
Fast-forward 20th Century this story is set in:
Today, even in the pseudo-liberated society such as ours, in most conservative homes, the life and the aspirations of a woman cannot be hers alone. On the face of it there is a semblance of liberation for women, a grudging acceptance; a sort of controlled allowance – let her do what she wants; and if she strays too far pull her up to bring her back to her senses!
I had to put this story of Meerabai in a new form. What if a young boy, for whatever reasons, proclaims one of the innumerable Devis to be his wife/consort / lover?
Wouldn’t hell break loose? The diehard Devi bhakts (worshippers) would be at his throat!
Not just that boy! Even I would be pilloried or hanged for penning such heretical story!
The prospects of getting hanged by the delirious worshippers in the form of an instant justice were too daunting for me. So I took the middle way out. Chickened out, guys!
I conjured up the story unfolding in a remote village of Dangs – by the way no such village by the name exists there – and drummed up the story of a fictitious Kuldevi called Merbai. Diligent readers would figure out the rhyming names of Merbai, Mohanio, Rukmi as Meerabai, Mohan (Krishna) and Rukimini – all related to Lord Krishna in some way or other.
For the Gujarati version, while a large part of the narration of the story is in normal chaste Gujarati, the inevitable dialogues had to be in the local lingo of region around Surat. Some well-wishers warned me that the local Surti as spoken in the villages around Surat would not be easily understood but I stuck to my scheme of things as otherwise the local flavor of the story as well as the punch would be lost.
Can you imagine a story being told or shown on the silver screen in chaste Hindi that shows the location as Mumbai? It has to be the bambaiyaa Hindi, right?
The classic Dilipkumar – Vyjayanti starrer Hindi movie Ganga Jumna would have been a cropper were it to be in chaste Hindi instead of the lilting Bhojpuri.
To be honest, it became clear that in order to do justice to the main theme of the story, the local flavor and the culture of a distant village would have to be woven in.
It was the end of the story that tested my nerves. While the idea of the story kept haunting in my mind for days together, I needed to come up with a strong end. So, the end that the readers see is the culmination of dozens of ideas. Many readers got so engrossed and involved in the story that it was nerve-wrecking for them to stomach the end that I have finally decided.
Unwittingly, my own take on the religious beliefs gets exposed in the story.
When the villagers express their resentment at Mohania being unable to get on with his premonitions, he declares “I worshipped Merbai and she guided me all along through my involuntary dreams but now that she is a part of me the knowledge of the future in store for me and me alone is unnecessary. The deity that I worship now resides in me and I should have the faith and confidence in my own self to chart out my future. All of you do likewise so that there is no need for someone else to forewarn you.”
Most of the readers would vouch for the general belief that the astrologers are able to peer into the crystal ball and forewarn ‘other’ people on their future but cannot predict the future of the astrologer. My own motto is “create your own destiny” by painstakingly chiseling away at the raw life given to them. I have made no conscious attempt to hide it in the story.
Is this a Folklore or a story?
This is not folklore in the strict sense of the word since no such event has actually occurred in any village that I know of. If a deity called Merbai is being worshipped anywhere in India I am not aware. So, it is not a story I have built around some old wives tale type folklore going around. It is a definite story to rekindle the idea of Meerabai into the modern society, promoting tolerance of views other than the dogmatic insistence on age old beliefs.
Some people, especially some critics from established Gujarati magazines have questioned the wisdom of incorporating the local language in some of the dialogues. Their questioning reeks of contempt for the hitherto unexplored variants of the Gujarati language.
Aside from the reasons that I have elaborated elsewhere in the epilogue, I wish to touch upon the process by which any Indian language flourishes through incorporation of colloquial slangs, idioms. It is well-nigh impossible to bring out the flavours of the culture of any region without drawing from the colloquial vocabulary.
Let us take the example of Gujarati literature.
It has been nourished through the efforts of giant literary figures such as Zaverchand Meghani, Pannalal Patel et al who have copiously written (‘Saurashtra ni Rasdhaar’ and Maanvi ni Bhavaai’ respectively) in the local lingo of the region to which the story belonged. I do not know what resistance they may have faced from the advocates of chaste Gujarati at that time. Over time, learned readers have learnt to understand and assimilate the local lingo to appreciate the stupendous literature created by these stalwarts.
Sure, some regions of Gujarat may have, for some historical reasons, fallen behind in contributing towards the growth of the traditional literature – here by tradition; I mean the sum total of literature already created in certain regional flavours. The way the Gujarati language is spoken in the region of South Gujarat perhaps is a case point. It has drawn and adopted words from the rich heritage of language spoken by the adivasis (aborigines) of hilly regions of Dangs. The purists are prone to recoil in horror at the insertion of such sentences/ phrases in some of my dialogues in the story. Even Saint Tulsidas had to face wrath faced of the purists Brahmins for rewriting the epic Ramayana in the local language spoken in the Uttar Pradesh.
Come on guys, be a sport. Don’t parade your prejudices by putting down the language spoken in South Gujarat as a some dialect of the chaste Gujarati generally accepted in the literary world so far. The evolution of any language cannot be in the hands of a particular caucus.
Let the Gujaratis with no hang-ups read and appreciate different forms of the language as spoken in South Gujarat instead of continuing to relish the vice-like hold that established writers have created for a century or more.
Coming back to the end of the story once again:
Mohanio himself cannot fathom the turmoil he is going through. All he knows is that he worshipped the deity Merbai along with his poojari father for years ever since he was a child. As the old story goes, Meerabai finally merged into the image of Krishna.
The pressure from his parents to get married gets Mohania confused. Merbai for him is inseparable from his psyche. The ritual of him being married off by the Mahatma is pregnant with a hope that he would regain his normal acceptable behavior. But, the idea of immersing the image of Merbai – the one he got married to – is full of anguish just like the glass of poison in the case of Meerabai. He fears that the old-fashioned villagers will not let him live the way he wanted to and would keep mocking him.
What better way than simply taking a Samadhi (watery grave of his own volition) with his beloved deity. Besides, he had already created hundreds of bhajans that would live through ages.
So I allowed him to jump off into the swirling waters along with the image of Merbai. The worshipper and the deity he worshipped merged and became one. Isn’t that worshipping all about?
The desire to marry a religious deity seems too outlandish even today. I am certainly not mooting this idea into the minds of young worshippers!
But the idea is to start questioning and reviewing old, outdated religious practices and make the religion compatible with the new knowledge gained through science. All that the science says, invents or discovers may not be good just as all that the religious practices may not be bad. Science keeps testing its own hypothesis all the time. All religions better do likewise – question, test and reform in the light of new verifiable facts.
Mortal men and women, over the centuries, have endeavoured to breathe fresh ideas and inevitably they have been crucified only to be resurrected later. Around the same time that Meerabai was doing her bit the great Saint Poet Narsinh Mehta revolutionized the society by joining the low caste villagers over dinner. Heretical as it may have sounded at that time it took several centuries to throw up a Mahatma Gandhi to resurrect Narsinh Mehta.
आ नो भद्राः करतवो कष्यन्तु विश्वतो
“Let knowledge and noble thoughts come from all directions”